By: Abe Peck
Lunchtime with Devo, the New Wave sensation, and the subject is
mutation. In "Jocko Homo," the band's robotic tribute to what it
"the important sound of things falling apart," Devo sings,
us that/ We lost out tails/ Evolving up/ From little snails/ I say
it's all/ Just wind in sails/ Are we not men? We are DEVO!" The lines
suggest H.G. Wells' book, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and it's 1933 film
version, Island of Lost Souls. "What is the law?" the whip cracking
Dr. Moreau asks the beasts he's made into half-humans. "Not to eat
meat, are we not men?" they reply. Devo's bizarre new album is called
Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!, which brings up the obvious
Q: Did you ever see Lost Souls?
A: "Sure," confesses Jerry Casale, bass player and Devo mouthpiece.
"That movie is just one of the best. There's a sincerity to it."
"There's sympathy," another Devo member adds. "Those mutants
fucked with. They looked like people from Akron." And Akron, Ohio, for
the five Devos, means roots.
"Look, we are spuds," Casale says. "We're very average
gene pool. In Akron, it's the Goodyear Museum and the Soapbox Derby
and McDonald's and women in hair rollers beating their kids in
supermarkets. We were products of it and used it."
As revealed the night before at a suburban club called B'Ginnings,
they've filtered that "normalcy" through a five-alarm frenzy.
first in yellow jump suits, then in Rollerball-type gear, they move
like android Busby Berkeleys. Their technocratic dance music
cross-pollinates minimalist Ramones energy and Kraftwerk electronic
gurgling. Their syncopated, creepy-crawly version of "Satisfaction"
transforms the Stones' lusty cry into music to feed praying mantises
Like members of the Tubes and Talking Heads, Devo founders began as
renegade artistes. During the early Seventies, Casale's Kent State
University days included such touches as wearing an enema bag to
gallery shows. It's a cultural edge he's maintained to this day.
"Real humans" is his curse on the people of Akron. "Just
without knowing what was going on. Getting fat, getting mellow,
getting drugged out, getting married. Getting real Devo."
Casale's search for an effective attack mode led to music.
"The art world is a rarified, almost medieval culture in America,"
explains. "Playing instruments that are readily available to everyone
and can immediately disseminate information is much more appealing."
Casale and fellow Kent State weirdo Mark Mothersbaugh, who sings and
plays synthesizer and keyboards, hooked up in 1972. In the spirit of
clonehood, they recruited their brothers, Bob-1 and Bob- 2, to play
guitars. Another Buckeye, Alan Myers, became their drummer. In 1975,
they filmed a ten-minute bit of high-energy insanity, "The Truth about
De-Evolution." It won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, helped
spread the word about them, and currently opens their onstage
In 1976, they cleared out some garage space and recorded "Jocko
and "Mongoloid," which was released quickly as a single distributed
Devo's label, Booji (pronounced "Boogie") Boy Records. In 1977,
released its gritty, eerie version of "Satisfaction," which became
cult favorite. Album contracts followed: Warner Bros. here, Virgin in
England. Elliot Roberts, who represents Joni Mitchell and Neil Young,
became their manager.
Along the way, Devo picked a mythology off the pop culture rack.
"De-evolution," which symbolizes man's current retrogression, comes
from a Wonder Woman comic book. The Big Idea - that man descended from
mutant, brain-eating apes who today are going crazy - is lifted from a
book rejected by the science world called "The Beginning Was the End:
Knowledge Can Be Eaten," which Casale found in a bookstore while
scouring New York for work.
And then there's "the important sound of things falling apart."
"What's falling apart is a certain picture of reality," Casale
"We're in corporate society i the Eighties, and all the dichotomies
about natural and unnatural, Democratic and Republican, capitalism and
communism, are ridiculous. The ambiguity that lies at the base of
America's survival-of-the-fittest myth is what we're stirring up and
"The torch of Western civilization is being carried solely by
America," he continues. "The psychotic thing is all over here. We
the white man's burden."
Equally useless is mainstream rock.
"Most rock & roll bands are irrelevant musically," Casale
with the exception of Roxy Music, Bowie, Iggy Pop. "Devo's not a
parody or attack, because that's a reaction. Devo represents a
possibility for a replacement of something that's gone stale."
And in the post-Sid Vicious period, punk fares just as poorly. "The
masochistic, kamikaze fashion of punk is really a Fifties idea of
rebellion that's outmoded and obsolete. Dog collars are redundant.
We're all wearing imaginary dog collars."
At B'Ginnings, the audience divided into dog-collared devotees and
suburbanites more inclined to mutter, "They suck."
Casale shrugs it off. "Polarization's okay. It creates hard focus.
Devo's a computer aesthetic, like zero and one, one or off. We're a
catalyst. When we appear, the crowd's energy becomes organized. It's a
guerrilla behavioralist experiment."
But the brave new landscape Devo paints is peopled by the weak, the
meek, the shitty. In one big scene during their show, the infant Booji
Boy is electrocuted in his crib.
Q: Are we not fascists?
A: "The word fascism has zero meaning at this point, zero valence.
People are frustrated and depressed. They see Booji Boy hurt himself,
and they don't have to hurt somebody. It satisfies both the sadistic
and masochistic urge."
These days, Devo's thriving by offering a hard, fast shard of reality.
But Casale knows that even nihilistic music has to adapt or die.
"You'll hear more synthesizer. The guitars will eventually be
eliminated. Once the big solo hippie stars blew it out with guitar
riffs there was nothing left to do with them. We use them now as
Q: Innovations aside, does not Devo go along with the program?
A: "Cooperating with a large corporate body like Warner Bros., that's
the only way to survive," Casale insists. "It's syncing up with the
real situation. We live in corporate society. You inject your
information into the program. Rebellion is obsolete, an outmoded way
"We're trying to do what a responsible person would do in this medium:
walk the tightrope. It remains to be seen how successful it is. We're
Warners' rollerball team."